Celebrating the Christmas while addiction is hurting your family
When you have a family member in active addiction to drugs or alcohol, the joy of the holidays is often weighted down with fear, shame and disappointment.
How will your loved one behave when the family comes together? Will gatherings be peaceful or positively explosive? Why can’t your family have a normal Christmas like everybody else?
“The most important thing is just to know that not everybody’s having a perfect Christmas,” said Clinical Therapist Aramy Denley, MS, LPC. “You may think they are, but that’s really an illusion.”
Denley and fellow clinical therapists David Carpenter, MS, LPC, NCC, and Kelly Ferguson, LPC, host weekly support groups for family members of those in addiction and recovery at Oxford Treatment Center’s outpatient offices in Olive Branch, Tupelo and Oxford, respectively. Here are their top strategies for getting through the holidays when you have a loved one in addiction.
1. Adjust your expectations
The first step to managing addiction in the family during the holidays is simply to let go of any expectation that things should be perfect.
“Most of us have an idealized version of what the holidays are supposed to look like,” Carpenter said. “Huge spreads of food, ballgames, gifts, and all the things we as Americans have adopted into our culture. However, for the family suffering with addiction, the holidays may have ranged from uncomfortable to traumatic.”
Having a loved one in addiction during the holidays can make you feel isolated. Yet the truth is, you’re far from alone: Addiction impacts one in every three households in America. The other ones have their struggles, too.
“Families just want to feel ‘normal,’” Denley said. “Yet every family is dysfunctional at some level. And when you add addiction and mental illness, the holidays can be like a Griswold family Christmas — minus the comedy.”
2. Simplify your efforts
If you’ve been struggling with addiction in your family, you are likely entering the holidays drained and disheartened. You can choose not to go all-out in holiday preparations, but instead focus on maintaining the aspects of the holiday that have the most meaning for you.
“That may mean making the homemade rolls but not the dressing, and not getting out all the china,” Denley said. “You don’t have to make a big to-do and cook an expensive meal. Maybe you can just put out your favorite decorations and listen to Christmas music. What parts of the holiday actually mean most to you?”
“The paradox is, the better we take care of ourselves,
the better our loved one will get.”
3. Take care of yourself
When someone is in active addiction, they become self-centered to a hurtful or even dangerous degree. Meanwhile, family members susceptible to codependency will live their lives in that person’s orbit, becoming hyper-focused on caring for or accommodating them. It’s not a healthy pattern, to say the least.
“The paradox is, the better we take care of ourselves, the better our loved one will get,” Denley said. Think about what would raise your own spirits during the holidays and act on those ideas. Make a point of not isolating yourself, and take advantage of opportunities to be around positive people.
“Go shopping and get something for yourself that would make you happy,” Denley said. “Or give yourself the gift of therapy. Having a therapist who listens to you gives you a chance to let all the bad feelings and experiences out, so you can start letting some good into your life.”
4. Set boundaries
Afraid your loved one will show up to the Christmas celebration drunk or high? Tell them ahead of time they won’t be welcome if they do. “Having an honest and open conversation with the person in addiction about what is and what isn’t acceptable protects the entire family system,” Carpenter said.
Ferguson said setting boundaries and sticking to them is a key way that family members can motivate their loved one to get treatment for addiction.
“I like the notion: ‘We will support your recovery. We will not support your addiction,’” Ferguson said, adding that the holidays is prime time to practice that approach. “Be positively selfish,” he said. “Protect your home from the chaos that comes with addiction, and do what the family needs to do to be healthy.
“Christmas is a special event, so don’t allow anyone the power to wreck that time. Make their presence conditional on their arriving sober before they can come in the house. Call the police if you have to. Just don’t allow their chaos to affect the family any more than it has to.”
5. Confront the addiction
Having a loved one in active addiction can make your holiday party feel like a pressure cooker. Sometimes, though, it can be a good opportunity to let out the steam in ways that bring about positive change.
“For people who don’t see their loved one often, having them home for the holidays can open their eyes to how serious the situation is,” Carpenter said. “It can also be a good time to intervene — to sit the person down when you have the collective family together and say, ‘We can tell things are not going well. We love you and you need help.’”
In such cases, Carpenter said, it’s often a good idea to enlist the help of a professional interventionist or at least a therapist to facilitate an intervention. The typical January uptick in admissions for addiction treatment centers suggests people often resolve to get help during or right after the holidays.
“Part of that is, nobody wants to be in rehab at Christmas,” Carpenter said. “But the other part is they do hit bottom during the holiday season, and this is when the family finally confronts them.”
How will you handle your loved one’s addiction this holiday season?
Do you need help knowing how to show love without enabling their disease? Join Oxford Center therapists Tuesday evenings at 6 p.m. for Family Hope & Healing, a support group offered at our outpatient offices in Oxford, Tupelo and Olive Branch. The meetings are free and open to anyone who has a loved one in addiction or recovery, regardless of whether they receive treatment at Oxford Treatment Center.
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